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Maurice White: The Audacity Of Uplift

Maurice White performing with Earth, Wind & Fire in New York in the late '70s.
Richard E. Aaron
Getty Images
Maurice White performing with Earth, Wind & Fire in New York in the late '70s.

All that is solid melts in the presence of funk. Maurice White — the prolific songwriter, singer, producer, arranger, bandleader, organizer and conceptualist at the helm of multi-platinum act Earth, Wind & Fire who transitioned on Thursday at 74 after a 25-year struggle with Parkinson's Disease — gifted us with years of optimistic, exuberant music that could instantly evaporate your frown into thin air.

Made up of top-shelf musicians like White, guitarist Al McKay, percussionist Ralph Johnson and keyboardist Larry Dunn, Earth, Wind & Fire (EWF) is the black music ensemble as a constellation of individual shining stars, each grooving together in the worshipful service of happy feeling. I've always thought of EWF as more than just a musical act — it's the concept of a band as a sensual rhythm machine. When brawny jams like "Sing a Song," "Getaway" or "Mighty Mighty" come blasting through the speakers, who among us is truly powerful enough to resist tapping our toes, snapping our fingers, bobbing our necks, launching into the electric slide or just straight up losing our minds altogether on the nearest dance floor?

Even EWF's dulcet, Fender Rhodes-sprinkled ballads like 1974's "Devotion" and 1975's "That's The Way of the World" and "Reasons" — staples of the Quiet Storm radio format — sound like wistful, optimistic calls to liberation and convivial good feeling, like listening to birds sweetly chirping at dawn. EWF envisioned polyrhythmic pop as a musical antidepressant: there are times when I feel better just thinking about EWF.

As a teenager in the late 1950s and early '60s, Memphis-born White had a coveted stint as staff drummer at Chess Records working with heavyweight acts like Etta James, Muddy Waters, Buddy Guy and The Impressions. He then graduated to the role of timekeeper for Ramsey Lewis' too-cool-for-school swing-pop trio. Contributing to tracks like Lewis' Grammy-winning 1966 "Hold It Right There," White learned plenty about how a soul, jazz and pop mélange — even if it was unrelated to the exact musical sound he'd later pursue with EWF — could begin to cross over beyond a core black audience.

In 1969, White took up jingle writing, and formed a trio called The Salty Peppers that despite a Capitol Records recording contract, never really caught on with a wider audience. In search of bigger fortunes, Maurice White ventured out to La La Land where his trio ballooned into a larger ensemble (including his flamboyantly fierce bassist brother Verdine). Signing up with Warner, the band made waves as a tight prog soul outfit with records like Earth, Wind & Fire and The Need of Love (both 1971) and contributed soundtrack sounds for iconoclast film director Melvin van Peebles' Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song sleeper. By 1973 they migrated to Columbia Records, then helmed by Clive Davis, where they hit their stride with accomplished albums like Last Days and Time and Head to the Sky.

EWF is arguably the most influential funk band in recorded music history, alongside Sly and the Family Stone and Parliament-Funkadelic. On slickly-produced tunes like 1974's Sly-influenced "Shining Star," EWF strove for an effervescent rhythm and blues that was a clever combination of Vietnam War-era counter-optimism, Black Arts movement-influenced Afrocentricity and Holiness Church messianism. Maurice White garnered an impressive reputation for co-writing sweetly melodious hooks and for his tastefully manicured arrangements, and EWF took things up a notch a year later by augmenting their already-packed line-up with the resplendent Phenix Horns. Maurice White's understated tenor perfectly complemented Philip Bailey's ozone-layer-falsetto, and the band's choral backgrounds are among the most accomplished in soul music. For their efforts over time, EWF took home six Grammys; even by the end of the '70s, they'd sold tens of millions of albums.

Maurice White, who'd taken an early interest in astrology and mysticism, deserves credit for helping to Africanize the Top 40 through his willful introduction of Egyptian symbols like the Ankh and the Eye of the Horus in the band's visual imagery, as well as his pursuit of themes and lyrics mining Egyptology and other aspects of African spirituality. White also broke ground by introducing quirky African instrumentation like the kalimba (thumb piano) and complex African and Latin percussion into pop songs — see 1973's "Zanzibar," for instance — a gesture which remains as meaningful to a certain cadre of black folks as the Beatles' introduction of the tambura into '60s rock with Revolver was to other people. Especially given their pursuit of Brazilian bliss on songs like the sublimely sunny "Brazilian Rhyme (Beijo)" and Ramsey Lewis' "Sun Goddess," we might begin to revisit EWF as the quintessential proto world music act of the '70s.

With lyrics like "you will find peace of mind if you look way down in your heart and soul," EWF could admittedly come off as preachy. Still, White's dogged Afrocentric Christianity never drove audiences away, and his secular sermonizing never seemed to conflict with his crossover ambition. A friend once hyperbolically suggested to me that back in the late '70s she and her friends were so mesmerized and swept up in rapture watching EWF perform in concert that they would have jumped off a bridge or done anything lead singer Philip Bailey encouraged them to do. In their pursuit of musical universalism, EWF transcended organized religion to become a kind of religion unto themselves: the thrill of EWF is hearing Maurice White and his bandmates preach the gospel of feel-good multicultural funk as the path to supreme glory.

In the 21st Century, the pop culture landscape has become increasingly defined by Tarantino-inspired brutalism as evidenced by the way cinematic vengeance fantasies like The Revenant take home major film prizes. In that context, EWF's inextinguishable positivity vibe might today seem passé. But even in its mid-'70s heyday, EWF's music served a powerful social purpose. White concocted music that meant to shield us from a world constantly threatening to harden us and turn our hearts cold — a post-civil rights America defined by the Nixon administration's terror tactics against anti-establishment activists, by the devastating influx of heroin in inner cities and by the ugliness of organized white resistance to busing.

In retrospect, Maurice White's clever idea in forming EWF was to power forward with an ethical black music that could force us to keep our heads up to the sky when it mattered most. It was as if through the EWF concept he wanted to offer a therapeutic public sphere, where we could all find collective peace of mind, where we could ward off the evil running through our brains. Today, the violence inflicted on black lives and trans lives and women's lives and Syrian lives forces us to question whether all lives really do matter to all of us; as a result, EWF's most politically explicit songs, like 1987's "System of Survival" are relevant as ever.

Like most pop visionaries, from Sinatra to Jagger to Jackson, Maurice White was as much a figure driven by inspiration as he was a calculated professional drawing on perspiration to produce hits. With their pre Cirque du Soleil live show — replete with skimpily-dressed dancers, Doug Henning-produced magic tricks, laser light shows and an ever-growing cast of eccentric stage characters — EWF helped realize the idea of stadium soul in the '70s. Naysayers found their predilection for theatrical spectacle corny; others (including me) remain floored by the astonishing vitality of their live act.

By 1979 EWF jumped headlong into disco: "Boogie Wonderland" is a gloriously campy gem in an already exponentially campy genre. That same year, they landed in Adult Contemporary heaven with the stately David Foster co-write "After the Love Has Gone;" and by the early '80s, EWF made it safely out of disco by emphasizing synth bass and vocorder on the irrepressible "Let's Groove." White's lyrics, sometimes couched in aphorisms that would later morph into the self-help lingo of the '80s, were not always coherent and were occasionally less than transcendent. What exactly does it mean to "share the spice of life," anyways?

Maybe Maurice White never managed to gain the sort of widespread name recognition afforded to James Brown or George Clinton because there were plenty of other cooks in the EWF kitchen. At its heart, the band was less the vision of a single auteur than it was a collaborative endeavor made possible by a range of human resources including underappreciated early co-producer and co-writer Charles Stepney (who died in 1976). In search of hits, White was wise enough to recruit gifted scribes like Skip Scarborough ("Can't Hide Love") and Alee Willis (co-writer on wedding band favorite "September.") Still, some band members resented White's willingness to take all the credit as the band's chief executive. Phil Bailey once remarked in an interview: "EWF in the '70s was like a Super Bowl team. Maurice was a great visionary, a great coach, but he wasn't like a Stevie Wonder or a Prince. We had great arrangers, producers, different writers, and the misperception came about when Maurice thought he was all of it. We did countless records where we were little more than sidemen. It became like work, and the magic went away."

These routine band politics, however, cannot diminish the boundless briliance Maurice White helped created both in and out of the studio. A skillful creative entrepreneur, he never failed to capitalize on business opportunities. In the mid-'70s, White and Stepney co-founded Kalimba Productions, and brought us Deniece William's brimming, haunting slow jam "Free." White also co-wrote and produced The Emotions' "Best of My Love," an ebullient firestorm that deserves an automatic place in anybody's desert island dance music playlist. Those two standouts don't even scratch the surface of White's expansive discography.

As Maurice White became reclusive in the '90s due to failing health, the EWF catalogue became busy work for successive generations of artists, from hip-pop superstar MC Hammer to Italo disco unit Black Box to neo-soul romeo D'Angelo to troubled MC-philosopher Tupac to British retro act Jamiroquai to cosmopolitan Nuyorican house remixers Masters at Work. For years music supervisors have made liberal use of EWF classics, licensing them for commercials and films too numerous to name. Like Queen and E.L.O and a few other rarefied bands, EWF have become so ubiquitous that it sometimes seems their recordings have sublimated into the ether; their artistic contributions seem to be everywhere and all around us, pouring forth from every supermarket speaker and car radio, simply a part of the DNA of modern living.

Turn on the radio today and you'll hear so-called tropical house and retro grooves and trap music of every style; all of this rhythmic music owes some sort of debt to EWF's soulful funk pop concept, even if the latter was driven by the sort of unimpeachable musicianship we hear less and less today on the charts. Though we are in a different era and time marked by different priorities and politics, how many young artists today are making the difficult choice to evoke the ethical stance that EWF took in their music? How many make the risky choice to reject pessimism, cynicism and nihilism the way Maurice White did, time and again, in his music? (I don't think EWF ever wrote a single ironic lyric).

To be fair, the current crop of teen and twenty-something pop and soul aspirants have years to grow into the mature, seasoned music-makers that EWF represent. But how many young artists right now are writing lyrics that capture the deeply spiritual precincts that underwrite romantic tunes like "Reasons?" How many young artists force us to consider, by way of inspirational messages, what it means to be conscious, to be alive, and to be a planetary citizen? In an age in which we're preoccupied by celebrity squabbles on social media and the physiology of all manner of resting b**** faces, which current pop star is insisting, as Maurice White did, that a smiling face is in itself a form of power, a weapon against the threat of evil?

On a ship called Fantasii, Maurice White took us on so many marvelous musical getaways, encouraging us to dream of benevolent alien nations residing on planets like Jupiter. During those fantastical rides in the sky, when we found ourselves wishing upon dreams of better lives, we learned that striving to become our best, highest shining selves — no matter who you are or from where you start — is always a worthwhile struggle. If we now live in sorrowful days — sometimes it seems that the cold world in which we live is no more than a hopeless masquerade — Maurice White's prophetic music tells us we are a mighty people of the sun who have the inherent capacity to one day open our eyes. And in that fateful moment when all of us choose to recognize our capacity to pursue love rather than fear or hate, we may finally reach the glorious promised land that Maurice White, in his unmitigated genius, sought to illuminate through decades of ever wonderful music.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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